Nubbly, pebbly beaches. Tangles of octopus bush and spiky she-oaks. And a somewhat pervasive smell of guano, thanks to the thousands of nesting birds that call the island home.
On first glance – and scent – Lady Elliot Island, a tiny dot at the southern end of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, a 30-minute flight from Bundaberg and 40 minutes from Hervey Bay, is not exactly a luxury tropical paradise. There are no cocktail bars, infinity pools or degustations, and you’re unlikely to find many influencers posing next to palm trees.
But first glances can be deceiving. Because Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort – or LEI as it’s known to the small group of staff who live there to keep it running – is a different kind of paradise. A near-total immersion in nature, surrounded by a Green Zone that protects all its underwater species from fishing or any other disturbance. A sheltered a keyhole into a technicolour marine ecosystem unlike any you’ll find on earth.
The first thing you’ll want to do after you arrive is get underwater, in whatever way is available to you. The resort runs regular dive tours out onto the reef, at one of 20 dive sites, or you can board a glass-bottomed boat to see what lies beneath without getting wet yourself. Expect to see rays, reef sharks, turtles and, at the right time of the year, manta rays. No diving or snorkelling experience? Just wade into the water at any of the shallow lagoons that ring the island, as deep as you’re comfortable with, and get your head into the sea.
You’re almost guaranteed to be joined by silently gliding green turtles, flubbing lazily through the shallows, fixing you with their heavy-lidded eyes.
Look closer and you’ll spot mottled sea snakes and cowrie shells, and furious little coral fish, darting crossly in and out of holes as they guard their little patches of reef.
The second thing you’ll want to do is… keep getting under water. Again and again and again. This is why you’re here and when you’ve done it once it grips you like an addiction, because there’s always something new to see round every coral bommie. When you’re on land, either sharing a drink with your fellow guests as the sun sets or having a meal in the communal dining room, conversations centre around what you saw underwater that day – an eagle ray? A curious octopus? A hammerhead? When you find out what everyone else has spotted you’ll be pulling your fins to get right back out there again.
At night, fall asleep in one of the waterfront eco-tents that are the plushest accommodation on this 150-capacity island. Be lulled to sleep by the sound of the wind in the pandanus trees, the cackling of the the noddy birds as they settle in for the evening and of course the soft lapping of waves that call you to join them again as soon as you wake. Luckily, just step outside your door and you can.
For more information or to book a stay, visit Lady Elliot Island.
THE FINE PRINT
How to get there
The island is the only coral cay with its own airstrip on the Great Barrier Reef, and regular charter flights leave to and from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Gold Coast and Brisbane. The resort can advise you of the timings for your flights when you book.
When to go
If marine life is your focus there’s almost always something happening around the waters of the island. February to April is when turtles hatch and make their way back to the water. May to August is peak manta ray season. June to October is all about humpback whale migration, and November to February is when green turtles haul themselves onto the island’s beaches to lay their eggs.
Suggested trip length
A three- or four-night stay should give you plenty of time to explore.
What to pack
Swimwear, sunscreen and super casual clothes. No need to dress up when there’s nowhere to go except the sea.
Because of its designation as a Green Zone and its delicate ecology, no food is grown or produced on the island. Food drops come in regularly by plane, but if you have dietary requirements be sure to make them known before you arrive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My life in travel
Favourite Aussie holiday memory
“From when I was tiny my family would regularly stay at an old-school holiday resort, Kim’s Camp, on the NSW Central Coast (it’s still there but it has a nice new name and is much more glamorous today). I was only a newborn when I went the first time and my parents tell me I slept in an esky. Ah, the carefree (careless?) late-1970s.”
Next local holiday
“I’m planning on disappearing into the bush with my husband and two dogs to this tiny house, buried somewhere mysterious in the Blue Mountains of NSW.”
Favourite international holiday spot
“I could happily see out the rest of my days on an island in the Philippines – there are only about 7000 to choose from.”
Australian bucket list destination
“I haven’t seen nearly as much Australian outback as I’d like. I’m obsessed with the idea of flying over Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and viewing the mysterious Marree Man from the air.”